Making a Case for Online Science Labs

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
10 November 2008

In my last article, I spoke of states blocking progress in online science education. California and New York proscribe the use of virtual labs for their high school diplomas. Rather than complain about this situation, the online community must find ways to work with the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) and the New York State Board of Regents (Regents) to amend their rules.

There’s much at stake here — too much to waste our efforts attempting somehow to make simulations okay as labs. Realize that if these states modify their rules, then we open up a great set of opportunities for online education.

Instead of beginning by opposing UCOP and Regents, begin where they are and work with them. I read in the UCOP position a statement that no virtual labs that they had seen were good enough to substitute for hands-on labs. Take that as our starting point.

First, make contact with these groups. Then, show them the possibility of using online labs as a part of the instructional process. What’s the best way to make that demonstration?

Because the UCOP and Regents have not seen any virtual labs that they feel are suitable, and they have seen plenty of simulations (data, objects, and phenomena generated by equations and algorithms), do not begin by showing them what they’ve already rejected. Instead, show them something completely different.

keller10nov08Remember that the decision makers are taking their guidance from scientists. I’m a scientist (chemistry) and have some ideas about how these important advisors view science lab experience. Understand that the traditional education community is very protective of hands-on labs. Any solution must include these to some extent. The exact extent should be a subject of negotiation. The College Board, for example, mandates 34 hours of hands-on time for AP Chemistry.

Use America’s Lab Report for guidance and as a possible neutral virtual meeting ground. Showing adherence to all aspects of the report will, I believe, demonstrate the required possibility.

Having established communication and demonstrated the potential for online science to succeed, engage in a dialog regarding any deficiencies perceived by the UCOP and/or Regents in the various presented alternatives. Agree that one or more, if amended, can substitute for some fraction of the total hands-on requirement. Some approach may even succeed without modification.

Overcoming any such deficiencies and presenting our case again will complete the process and open the door for online science instruction throughout the United States.

Our initial presentation should include as many innovative approaches to virtual labs as we can muster and should not include simulations as lab substitutes for the reasons stated above.

I’m aware of three possibilities for presentation. None use simulations. All use the methods of science.

1. Large online scientific database investigation. Prof. Susan Singer, the lead author for America’s Lab Report, uses this approach in her own classes.

2. Remote, real-time robotic experimentation. Prof. Kemi Jona, one of the authors of the NACOL document about online science (together with John Adsit), is working with the MIT iLab people to supply these labs to students.

3. Prerecorded real experiments embedded in highly interactive software allowing students to collect their own personal data. The Smart Science® system is the only known example of this approach. (Disclaimer: I’m a creator of this system.) Apex Learning and Johns Hopkins University’s CTY are just two organizations that use these integrated instructional lab units.

I’d be happy to hear of other approaches that are not simulations and to work with anyone who’d like to see a change in the UCOP and Regents standards for lab experience. I’d especially like to talk to anyone who has contacts with the UCOP or Regents. The sooner we start in earnest, the sooner we’ll succeed.

Simulated Labs Are Anathema to Most Scientists

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
7 November 2008

[Editor’s note: This article was originally submitted as a comment to John Adsit’s November 6 I-Blog article, “Old School Thinking Blocks Quality Online Science Classes,” on 11.6.08.]

I completely agree with the last portion of what John [Adsit says in “Old School Thinking Blocks Quality Online Science Classes“]. My own blogging on the subject is at

I also mostly agree with the rest of his comments.

1. Typical lab experiences are poor. However, many science teachers, using the same labs, provide great lab experiences. Online science courses must do as well.

2. John refers to an “‘integrated’ lab program” in America’s Lab Report. [The entire report is available online at no cost.] Actually, the report refers to “integrated instructional units” more than twenty times. It never uses the phrase “integrated lab program” or even “integrated lab.” It’s not the lab program that they wish to be integrated but the instructional unit containing the lab.

keller013. The question of exactly how online science courses will meet the goals is left open. That’s partly good because new technologies cannot always be anticipated. However, the range of options should be restricted a little. Here, America’s Lab Report provides an excellent guideline. Here it is.

“Laboratory experiences provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data drawn from the material world), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science.”

As long as your online science labs fill this definition, you can go forward and test it against the lab goals and the integration goals.

4. Absolutely, old school thinking is blocking excellent innovation in science, especially in the lab area. The reason for this blockage is not hard to find. In addition, the blockage comes in the form of restricted means rather than ends. The blockers (e.g., UCOP) say you cannot use online labs in any form rather than specifying results that must be achieved. America’s Lab Report took the opposite approach.

The reason for the blockage clearly comes from a statement on one UC web page that no virtual lab THAT THEY HAD SEEN could substitute for hands-on labs. Yet, they steadfastly refuse to look at new technologies in virtual labs.

Here’s the problem. A plethora of virtual labs have appeared, and they’re all SIMULATED. That is, they use equations and/or algorithms to generate data, objects, and phenomena for investigation by students. This approach is anathema to most scientists. The attempts to make simulations into science labs has so turned off these scientists that now they won’t even consider ANY virtual labs.

alrYet, many people continue to attempt to create virtual labs from simulations. Instead, they should be looking elsewhere. For example, one of the authors of the NACOL report, Kemi Jona, has been working on an alternate approach: remote real-time robotic labs. They’re virtual, online, and real. They violate the rules of the UCOP, but they meet the America’s Lab Report definition and goals.

That such exemplary work is banned by California and New York is a travesty. With ever-declining budgets and schools in crisis, any valid approach should be supported.

The approach should be as good or better than the best traditional labs. The standard cannot be the “typical” labs that are so poor. They’re a “straw man” and should not be part of the debate.

I hope that someone can get the attention of the UCOP and have them look into some of the excellent alternatives to supervised traditional labs. If they end up looking at simulations, they’ll just be turned off again, and we’ll have to suffer many more years of banned virtual labs. We must present them with real innovations that don’t depend on simulated activities but use real data from the real world with highly-interactive collection of personal data by students.